Indoor dining will be able to resume in New York City at the end of September for the first time since the start of the pandemic in March.
Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement Wednesday afternoon, laying out the new rules and guidelines for restaurants that plan to resume indoor dining on September 30th: restaurants cannot go over 25% capacity indoors, there must be temperature checks at the door, all tables must be six feet apart, one person of each party must leave their information for possible contact tracing, masks must be worn any time you're indoors except when you're at your table, restaurants must reach the state's air filtration requirements, and restaurants must close by midnight.
In addition, no bar service is allowed, meaning people can't sit at bars but can still be served drinks at their table. Additionally, bars cannot reopen their indoor spaces at this time, only restaurants.
"A restaurant is not just the restaurant owner, a restaurant is the kitchen staff, waitstaff, the whole industry around restaurants," Cuomo said. "And restaurants also pose possible risks, concentrations of people inside [for] indoor dining. But there's also great economic loss when they don't operate."
Cuomo explained that there were two factors that made him hesitate to resume indoor dining until now: there had been clusters of outbreaks because of indoor dining returning in other places both in and out of state, and compliance had been lacking in NYC when outdoor dining returned in July. The state has suspended the liquor licenses of over 150 restaurants in the city during the pandemic, with around 50% of those violations having to do with indoor dining.
To deal with compliance, Cuomo's state task force—consisting of members of the State Liquor Authority, state police, and Sheriff's Office—will be joined by 400 "code enforcement inspectors" from the city. Cuomo noted those members could be from the "NYPD, health inspectors, code inspectors, environmental inspectors, Department of State inspectors, any inspector code compliant agent can function on the task force."
However, Cuomo said he had come up with a "new idea" to help with enforcement: he's asking New Yorkers to self-police by reporting any restaurants they see breaking the 25% capacity for a program he's calling "New Yorkers Protecting New Yorkers." Patrons can anonymously text or call in tips about violations to the task force. (Call 833-208-4160 or text a violation to 855-904-5036.)
"It will all be anonymous, restaurants will not know that you are the one who provided info, but it will help that task force, then the task force can send an inspector to that specific restaurant," he said. "We're asking New Yorkers to be part of the solution. I believe in New Yorkers' ability to do the right thing. That is not blind faith. That's a result of the experience of gong through COVID."
The rest of New York State was allowed to resume indoor dining at 50% at the start of Phase 4 back in July. Cuomo noted that if the infection rate doesn't go up, the state will reassess the guidelines and determine whether to go up to 50% capacity. Cuomo set November 1st as the deadline to make that determination, but it could happen any time before then.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was not present for Cuomo's announcement, said in a statement, “We are continuing New York City’s economic recovery by bringing back indoor dining. Working with the state and public health officials, we’ve achieved a plan that puts health and safety first by including strict capacity limits, a close monitoring of citywide positive testing rates and a coordinated inspection regimen. Science will guide our decision-making as we continue to monitor progress and health care indicators over the next three weeks to ensure a safe reopening. This may not look like the indoor dining that we all know and love, but it is progress for restaurant workers and all New Yorkers.”
While Cuomo stressed that indoor dining could be put on pause again if the infection rate goes up, he did not offer a specific threshold that would trigger it being stopped. However, de Blasio said in his statement that if NYC "hits 2% in COVID-19 positivity rates, the City will immediately reassess."
As with restaurants and bars found breaking the rules of outdoor dining, restaurants that are found in violation of the 25% capacity or other safety guidelines could be fined or lose their license, depending on the egregiousness of the violation.
"The message to the restaurants is: this is not an issue you want to fool around with, it's not worth the risk," Cuomo said. "I understand the economic pressure. It's not worth the risk. If you lose your license, that's months of being out of business, assuming you can get it back."
More than 10,000 restaurants are participating in the city's Open Restaurants program, which will continue with expanded outdoor dining in the city through at least October 31st.
Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance which represents thousands of restaurants and bars across the city and has been at the forefront of the push for the return of indoor dining, said in a statement, "The New York City restaurant industry has been financially devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a safe return to indoor dining is critical to help save these vital small businesses and jobs. We’re thankful to Governor Cuomo for announcing a return to indoor dining with a blueprint for future expansion. Restaurants are essential to New York’s economic and social fabric, and indoor dining is a key component to the industry’s recovery."